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The origins of Greece are buried in legend, and it can be difficult to determine where myth leaves off and reality begins. The nation’s complex and turbulent history was born of many waves of invasion and conflict: the city-states of the Classical period; the empires of Macedonia and of Rome; and the long period when Greece virtually disappeared within the Byzantine and Ottoman empires before finally taking its place as an independent European nation.
- Life in the 5C BC
- Byzantine Greece
- Ottoman Domination and Independence
- Democracy and a European Identity
Although Greece was definitely inhabited from the Palaeolithic period (around 40000 BC), it was not until the Neolithic period (around 6000 BC) that settled communities established themselves, as is evident from excavations in Epirus, Macedonia and Thessaly. It was the Bronze Age (3000 BC), however, that was to witness the development of civilisation, founded largely on a common Indo-European language.
In his poem Works and Days , Hesiod (second half of 8C BC) laid down a chronology associating metals with the generations who had lived before. If the golden age was lost in time, the age of silver corresponded to the Neolithic period (6000–2600 BC), while the age of bronze witnessed the Ionian and Achaean invasions (2600–1500 BC). Hesiod’s own period (the Archaic era) was the age of iron.
The myth of the Flood
According to legend, Zeus sent a great flood to punish the impious people of the Bronze Age. Only two were saved: Deucalion, son of Prometheus, and his wife Pyrrha, who had been advised by Prometheus to ride out the flood in an Ark. After nine days and nights, the vessel came to rest in the mountains of Thessaly. Zeus sent Hermes to make the survivors swear their fidelity to him. Deucalion asked for companions, and the two survivors were told to throw the bones of their mother over their shoulders. Their mother being the earth, they threw stones as instructed. Deucalion’s stones became men, and Pyrrha’s became women.
Deucalion and Pyrrha had many children, including Helen whose sons were Doros, Xouthos and Eole; Xouthos in turn fathered Achaeos and Ion. Thus the main groups of invaders – Dorians, Aolians, Achaeans and Ionians – were legitimised in mythology.
The Mycenaeans (1600–1100 BC)
While a culture developed in Crete, known today as Minoan , usinga pictogram script known as Linear A (which subsequently evolved into the syllabic Linear B script, finally deciphered in 1952), continental Greece was being settled by groups of Caucasian origin: the Ionians and Aeolians (around the beginning of the second millennium), and later the Achaeans (c.1600 BC); this last group settled in the Peloponnese. This era witnessed the establishment of fortified settlements centred on a megaron , administered by the anax (king). Society was dominated by a military aristocracy. This Mycenaean culture, of which much is known (both from the works of Homer and from archaeological evidence), used the Linear B script to record commercial transactions, practised ancestor worship and were able to work in non-ferrous metal. It’s likely that their common language allowed communities to cooperate, as evidenced by colonisation of Crete (15C BC) and Rhodes, and the sack of Troy (around 1230 BC).
The Dark age (late 12C–early 8C BC)
According to Thucydides, author of the History of the Peloponnesian War , the end of Mycenaean culture was caused by the arrival of the Dorians , a new wave of invaders originating from the valleys of the Danube. Driving out the established inhabitants, the Dorians brought with them iron, ceramic wares and the first identifiable sacred sites. Over the course of the 9C and 8C BC, the Phoenician alphabet was adapted to become the Greek alphabet, engendering a literary civilisation with a common language. Within a few decades, the great epics the Iliad and the Odyssey were to be written.
The Archaic era (mid-8C–6C BC)
This period was a cultural reawakening, with the development of political institutions centred on the polis , a spirit of commercial dynamism which fuelled colonisation throughout the Mediterranean world, and eventually a religious apogee, ample evidence of which exists in the holy places (Olympos, Delphi, Epidauros) and temples of this date.
Plutarch (1C) relates how “Theseus had a grand plan to gather together all the peoples of Attica in one great city, creating one state for one people.” This structure, increasingly prevalent from the 8C BC, resulted in the emergence of autonomous city states , each constituting an urban settlement presiding over its surrounding lands. Árgos was probably the first of these, but they soon proliferated to include Sparta, Corinth, Thebes and Athens. This parcelling up of land led to incessant disputes over territory. From such conflict came the Lelantine War (between Halkída and Eretria in Euboia), the Messenian War (between Sparta and her neighbours), and many others. Over the years these societies evolved (although there were exceptions to this rule, such as Sparta) from royalties, to oligarchies, then tyrannies, before emerging as democracies. An important development was the emergence of legislators like Solon of Athens. Their contribution did much to assuage unrest among ordinary citizens who were concerned by the arrogant ambitions of the aristocracy. This was also a fundamental reason for the emergence of tyrant rulers, many of whom established dynasties.
September 776 BC Inauguration of the Olympic Games . This date represents a key milestone in the chronology of Ancient Greece. The Olympic Games were to form the model for the Phytic Games at Delphi (c.675 BC), the Isthmic Games held in northern Corinth and the Nemean Games.
c.775 BC Beginnings of colonisation . Colonisation enabled greater control of maritime trade routes for Greece. New settlements were daughter cities of the mother cities from which they originated. Although politically independent, these new colonies retained strong cultural and religious links with their mother cities. Four great waves of colonisation are recorded: between 775 BC and 675 BC, when Sicily and southern Italy were settled; 675 BC to 600 BC, when the Black Sea, Egypt and Cyrenaica were colonised; 600 BC to 545 BC, when colonists arrived in Etruria, southern Gaul and the east coast of Spain; and from 545 BC onwards when Thrace and the islands were colonised.
c.750 BC Homer’s epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey , are written.
c.740 BC Lelantine and Messenian wars.
621–620 BC Edict of Draco in Athens lays down legislative framework to deal with criminal acts.
594–593 BC Archonate of Solon introduces social reforms and political structures.
560–510 BC Tyranny of Pisistratos and his sons.
508 BC Reforms of Cleisthenes.
The Classical period: the triumph of Athens (5C BC)
This was a bloody time in Greek history, starting with the revolt against Persian domination in the Ionian colonies, which was followed by the Persian Wars, and later in the century the long Peloponnesian War. Between these two great conflicts, however, Athens was to experience a golden age of artistic and political pre-eminence.
499–494 BC Revolt of the Ionian Greeks. A contingent of Athenians destroy Sardes, the Persian capital. Miletus is sacked in reprisal and the Ionian cities are obliged to swear allegiance to the Persian king Darius.
492 BC First Persian War.
490 BC Darius lands in eastern Attica, but is defeated by the Athenians at Marathon.
482 BC Themistocles builds a fleet of 200 triremes to defend Athens.
481 BC Formation of the League of Corinth: at the request of Athens, the Greek states (except Thessaly and Boeotia) form an alliance under the command of Sparta.
480 BC Second Persian War . Darius’s successor, Xerxes, triumphs over Leonidas’s heroic Spartans at Thermopylae. The Persians burn down the Acropolis but are subsequently checked by the allied Greek states.
478 BC Formation of the League of Delos . The cities of the Ionian and Aegean unite with Athens against the Persians. Each city contributes towards a common war chest to maintain an army and navy.
454 BC Transfer of the League’s treasury from Delos to Athens.
449–448 BC Peace of Callias ends the Persian Wars: autonomy of the Greek cities of Asia Minor is recognised by Persia.
446 BC Thirty Years Peace agreed between Athens and Sparta.
444–428 BC Pericles at the forefront of Athenian affairs: affirmation of democracy, strengthening of naval power, and a vibrant political scene.
431–404 BC Peloponnesian War . Athens’ attempt to spread her power results in Corinth and other cities of the isthmus appealing to Sparta. War is declared and the lengthy struggle which ensues involves the whole Greek world. Athens is finally defeated in 404.
404–403 BC Tyranny of the Thirty: rule by oligarchy until democracy re-established in 402 BC.
Macedonian hegemony and Hellenistic Greece (4C–3C BC)
Under the watchful eye of the Persian Empire, Sparta and Thebes vied for supremacy in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War. The intervention of the kingdom of Macedonia brought greater stability; this was the prelude to the reign of Alexander the Great and his empire which was to extend to the Indus and the foothills of the Himalayas.
399 BC Socrates is condemned to death.
395–387 BC Corinthian War. Thebes occupied by the Spartans (382 BC). Peace negotiated under the auspices of Artaxerxes II of Persia.
377 BC Formation of the second League of Delos: Athens and other cities unite against Spartan hegemony. Unlike the first such coalition, Athens is not able to impose her wishes unilaterally.
376 BC Reorganisation of the Boeotian League centred on Thebes. Theban hegemony under Pelopides and Epaminondas. After the defeat of the Spartans at Leuctra (371 BC), the Boeotians invade the Peloponnese, ravage Sparta and occupy Messenia.
356 BC Mausolus, Statap of Caria in Asia Minor, forms an alliance including Chios, Rhodes and Byzantium, destroys the Athenian fleet, and forces Athens to accept the independence of the rebel Aegean cities.
356–336 BC Philip II of Macedon conquers the territories neighbouring his kingdom. Exploiting the disarray among the city states, he advances into central Greece and defeats the Athens-Thebes coalition at Chaeronea (338 BC). Demosthenes, who had worked tirelessly to foil the Macedonian invaders, railed against his fellow citizens: “It is shameful, a slur on your reputation, that of Athens and of your ancestors, to allow Greece to become enslaved.” Philip negotiated a treaty with Athens that was more generous than in the case of other Greek states; he did, however, appoint himself commander-in-chief of the Hellenic League, the alliance formed to tackle the Persian threat. In 336 BC, Philip was assassinated at Pella.
336 BC Alexander , son of Philip, is acclaimed king by the army. Conflict with neighbouring northern states, and the Theban revolt (335 BC).
334–323 BC Alexander’s Asian campaigns fulfil his father Philip’s ambitions. The young king’s army sweeps across Asia Minor, defeating the Persians at Granicus. After conquering the cities of the south and west coasts, he stops at Gordium, where he severs the famous knot (according to legend, whoever achieved this feat would become master of all Asia). Halicarnassus was taken, before Darius and the Persians were defeated at Issus (333 BC). The Phoenicians were next to crumble before Alexander, after Tyre was besieged (332 BC). Egypt was added to his dominions (Alexandria was founded in 331 BC) before Alexander crossed the Tigris and Euphrates, defeated Darius again at Gaugamela and annexed Babylon and Susa. Persepolis was destroyed, Media and Parthia were then conquered and by 329 BC Alexander’s army had reached Bactria. Crossing the Indus in 326 BC, Alexander reached his furthest point, before his troops’ unwillingness to proceed obliged him to retrace his steps. In 324 BC he married Roxane of Bactria, and then set about building a fleet to conquer Arabia. This ambition, however, was cut short by his death on 13 June 323 BC.
323 BC The compromise of Babylon: Alexander’s generals divide up the empire between themselves and conflict ensues among them. The Antigonid dynasty become rulers of Greece. Various alliances are formed, either to fight Macedonian control, or to preserve a pan-Hellenic status quo.
280–275 BC Pyrrhus , king of Epirus, aids Tarentum against Roman expansionism and wins a number of victories.
279–278 BC Delphi attacked by the Gauls.
228 BC Athens expels the Macedonian garrison from Piraeus.
227 BC Cleomenes III of Sparta implements reforms.
212 BC Fall of Syracuse to Rome.
Roman Greece (2C–1C BC)
After Philip V of Macedon (221–179 BC) had supported Hannibal in the Second Punic War, Rome began to take an interest in the Hellenic world which had developed from the empire of Alexander. Having defeated Philip V at Cynoscephalae, Rome declared the freedom of Greece in 196 BC. In fact, the Greeks recovered only part of their independence under Roman control. The continuing intervention of Rome in Greek affairs led in 146 BC to a rebellion by the Achaean League headed by Corinth, which was laid waste by the Roman legions. The various city leagues were then broken up and Greece came under Roman occupation, which subsequently spread to the rest of the Hellenic world; this was annexed completely after the triumph of Augustus over Anthony and Cleopatra at Actium in 30 BC. In 27 BC the Romans united the Greek lands to form a single province, the province of Achaia. Some cities were given the status of free cities (eg Byzantium), while others had federated or allied status.
Coming of the Byzantine Empire (1C–4C AD)
Although the Greek city states lost power and prestige, Hellenism flourished and Greece retained its cultural, literary and artistic influence. No doubt this was largely due to the political and religious tolerance practised by the Romans, for whom Greece held a strong fascination (the Emperor Hadrian visited Athens three times). Administration was largely in the hands of the local population and the practice of the Greek religion was permitted. This relative autonomy granted by Rome gradually created two spheres of influence in the Roman Empire: on the one hand a Greek East combining the Greek world proper and the Hellenistic areas of Asia Minor, and on the other a Latin West.
From the 3C AD, Greece, in common with the rest of the Empire, had to face barbarian invasions, which were more successfully resisted by the eastern part of the Empire than the western part. These dangers made Rome’s loss of influence more palpable and in 330 the Emperor Constantine made Byzantium, a former Greek colony on the Bosphorus, the capital of the Empire. Initially called New Rome, the city was soon to bear the name Constantinople in his honour.
In 380, during the reign of Theodosius the Great , Christianity became the official religion, pagan cults were banned, and in 393 the Olympic Games were abolished. In order to resist the barbarian invasions in its western part, he divided the Empire at his death in 395 between his two sons: Arcadius inherited the East and Honorius the West. Constantinople remained the capital of the Eastern Empire.
Life in the 5C BC
Prior to the 6C BC there is very little documentary evidence to help historians reconstruct daily life. From this date onwards, however, there is ample material: ceramic wares, written texts, coinage and other archaeological finds. The most data has been gathered for Athens and Attica, Sparta, Thebes and Boeotia, more than enough to give a clear picture of daily life in Classical times.
Attica’s population numbered between 250 000 and 300 000. Sparta, covering a larger but harsher territory, had slightly fewer inhabitants. Around 150 000 lived in the Theban province of Boeotia. Excluding Macedonia and the colonies of Asia Minor and greater Greece, the total population was close to 2 000 000.
Behind the façades
The great legends give the impression of a society of luxurious villas, streets paved with marble, rigorous order and impeccable cleanliness. The reality, however, was rather different. One visitor observed: “The city has no water supply, and signs of its decrepitude are everywhere.” To conclude, he stated: “it is difficult to believe that this place is truly Athens.” Although the great monuments such as the Acropolis or the Agora were very elegant sites, the rest of the city was a dirty, malodorous mass of confused streets and alleys. The first real town planner was Hippodamos of Miletus (mid-5C BC) who introduced a more ordered approach. To him is attributed the reconstruction of Piraeus (as decreed by Themistocles) and Miletus, among other projects.
Houses were built in adjoining terrace fashion, separated by thin dividing walls (so thin that when the Thebans attacked the Plataea in 431 BC, the inhabitants fled their attackers by knocking through the walls from house to house). In Athens, the poor lived in cave dwellings carved into the hillsides. The more prosperous lived in houses, each built around a central courtyard, sometimes embellished with a portico and a well. In areas of dense habitation, some houses were divided up into numerous apartments, each rented to a separate family. Flooring was usually plain earth at ground level, with wood boards used for the upper storeys. Windows were small and doors opened directly into the street.
Food and clothing
Although the Greeks had been able to tell the time accurately from the 5C BC, the ordering of the days was largely dictated by meals. Breakfast (usually corn or barley bread soaked in wine) was eaten at dawn. Lunch at noon was a light affair, with supper as the main meal of the day. Away from mealtimes, there would be trips to the market, and for more prominent citizens, involvement in public affairs.
A ubiquitous feature of the Greek diet was the maza , made from barley flour. Fish and game were also common; meat, though, was reserved for sacrificial purposes. The many Greek states had differing attitudes towards food, from the austere Spartans (who existed almost exclusively on a diet of black gruel) to the opulent Boeotians (whose gluttony was widely observed).
In addition to water, the Greek drank goats’ milk, and, of course, wine, often diluted with sea water or flavoured with thyme or cinnamon. Certain Greek wines, notably those from Lesbos, Chios and Thasos, were highly regarded and exported throughout the Mediterranean. Wine flowed freely at Greek banquets (symposia) where diners, served by slaves, reclined at low tables and ate with their hands.
Evening meals would often be preceded by a bath (at the public bathhouse, at home for the better off, or indeed in the river for the austere Spartans). Beards were the norm (until the reign of Alexander the Great at least), hair was cut short in Athens and usually dispensed with altogether in Sparta. Women had elaborate hairstyles and wore make-up.
Clothing was similar in style across the social classes, although the better off had theirs made of finer fabrics. A short tunic (chiton) fastened at the shoulders was the norm; on more formal occasions a larger cloak (himation) was also worn. Women wore a longer tunic garment fastened with a belt at the waist.
Cradle to grave
According to Greek literature, courtesans were for pleasure, concubines for the fulfilment of everyday needs, and wives for the production of legitimate heirs and the running of the household. The Athenian wife lived a secluded existence (unlike Sparta’s women, who scandalised the world with their relative freedom), in the company of her mother-in-law and other female members of the family, and played no part whatsoever in public life. Dedicated to procreation alone, few marriages were based on romance. The emphasis on breeding a strong next generation was particularly accentuated in Sparta, where ruthless weeding out of the weak was practised. Babies deemed in any way deficient were thrown to their deaths over a cliff. Those who were fit and healthy underwent a rigorous upbringing: at the age of seven they were taken from their mothers and entered state academies where they learnt the martial skills necessary for Sparta’s continued military pre-eminence. This training culminated in a period of living wild in the forests at which point the young Spartans were expected to hunt down and kill a slave to prove themselves. Young Athenians, on the other hand, received a wide and cultivated education which included the study of grammar and music. Those who sought further education could then become pupils of one of the seats of learning founded by the philosophers, such as Plato’s Academy or Aristotle’s Lyceum.
All Greeks were duty bound to assist and care for their parents; failure to do so could result in loss of civil liberties or even imprisonment. The elderly were an object of veneration. Funeral rites were complex, involving ceremonial purification, mourning and processions; both burial and cremation were practised.
Work and pleasure
The 5C BC saw a decline in the economic importance of agriculture and a corresponding increase in the importance of manufacture and trade. Money replaced bartering, the drachma becoming a universal currency as Athens’ power grew. Status in society, however, remained largely dictated by the role played by the individual rather than based on personal wealth.
Manufacture and trade were highly diversified, with potters, linen merchants, food producers and many other retailers in the city markets. Industrial activity such as mining was well established, with some operations functioning 24 hours a day; the ready availability of large numbers of slaves facilitated this and, indeed, all aspects of life for the Greeks.
For free citizens, there was plenty of time for relaxation. In Athens there were 152 public holidays a year, days dedicated to games, hunting, fishing and theatrical events.
In the late 4C AD, the eastern territories of the Roman Empire included the Balkans, modern Greece, Asia Minor and Egypt. Greek, the language of the Church and the vernacular of the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean, gradually superseded Latin as the official language. Thus a totally Hellenised empire emerged which was to perpetuate the traditions of Rome long after the fall of the western empire in 476.
Religious conflict and external threats
AD 395 Division of the Roman Empire between the sons of Theodosius: a Latin empire in the west, and a largely Greek empire centred on Constantinople (formerly Byzantium) in the east.
451 Council of Chalcedon : confirmation of the position of the Patriarch of Constantinople as second only to the Pope.
476 The last western emperor is deposed by Odoacer. Constantinople becomes sole capital of the empire.
Byzantium was a theocratic empire, where the emperor (known by the Greek title of basileus from the 7th century onwards) and patriarch exercised interdependent functions (symbolised by the twin-headed eagle, Byzantium’s emblem), the former as protector of the empire’s status as the ultimate manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth, and the latter as guardian of the Christian faith. Doctrinal issues were of concern to everyone in society, since not only did such matters jeopardise the chances of the individual soul’s entry into heaven, but they could also threaten the very fabric of society. Indeed, the history of Byzantium is largely dictated by religious debates.
Throughout its thousand-year existence, the empire was under constant threat of invasion. From the west came barbarians, Normans, Franks and Venetians; from the north the Slavs, who occupied mainland Greece and the Peloponnese from 6C to 8C; from the east the Persians, the Arabs and finally the Turks. The erosion of the empire over time resulted in shortages of food, manpower and revenue, so necessary for the operation of the vast bureaucratic machine which Byzantium had become. The Byzantines were fine soldiers, but just as importantly they used diplomacy skilfully, paying off one group of aggressors while receiving tribute monies from other adversaries. They also spread Christianity, converting their northern neighbours, the Slavs.
527–65 Reign of Justinian I. In 529 he closed the great Athenian seats of learning, the Academy and the Lyceum, suspecting them of propagating paganism. He retook Italy from the Ostrogoths and a large part of Spain from the Visigoths, but the barbarians invaded Thessaly and reached the Isthmus of Corinth. During his reign the Corpus Juris Civilis legal texts were compiled, subsequently known as the Justinian Code.
532–37 Construction of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.
580 onwards Slavic invasion: siege of Thessaloníki and occupation of the Peloponnese.
610–41 Reign of Heraclius. Defeated the Persians, and saw off the Avar siege of the capital (626), but could not prevent the conquest of Syria and then Egypt by the Arabs (636).
717–41 Reign of Leo III the Isaurian, who, in 726, forbade the cult of icons and ordered their destruction (iconoclasm); he also stemmed Arab expansionism.
754 Iconoclast Council of Hiera.
783 Victory of Staurikos over the Slavs, who were subsequently defeated at Patras (805).
805 Decree by Basil II consecrating Mount Athos to monastic life. The first monastery erected in 963.
813 The Bulgars lay siege to Constantinople.
827 Crete falls to the Arabs.
19 March 843 Affirmation of orthodoxy and rehabilitation of icons.
856–87 and 877–86 Patriarchate of Photius who sought to convert the Slavs, sending out the missionaries Cyril and Methodius, pioneers of the Cyrillic alphabet.
860 The Russians attack Byzantium, laying siege to Constantinople.
904 Fall of Thessaloníki to the Arabs.
961 Crete recaptured from the Arabs by Nicephoras Phocas, who, in 969, also takes Antioch.
1001–14 Basil II campaigns against the Bulgars: in the narrow defile of Clidion the Byzantines inflict a heavy defeat on Samuel’s Bulgar army.
1032 Recapture of Édessa, an important centre of icon manufacture.
c.1050 Michael Psellus reintroduces the study of philosophy at the University of Constantinople. Through his pupils he was to exert enormous influence on Byzantine thought and is seen as a proto-humanist.
1054 Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
1071 Battle of Mantzikert: the Byzantines are defeated by the Turks, marking the beginning of Ottoman expansionism.
1081–85 The Comnenus dynasty: through their oligarchic rule, neglect of the army and imprudent expenditure, they heralded the decline of the empire.
From the Crusades to the Ottomans
The Crusades were unleashed in the east by 11C and 12C Popes on the pretext of aiding the Byzantines in their efforts to recover the Holy Land from the Muslims; the Franks, however, were clearly more interested in carving out territory for themselves and the Venetians saw commercial opportunities aplenty.
1185 Thessaloníki taken by the Normans.
1204 Constantinople taken on the pretext of resolving the issue of succession to the imperial throne. On 13 April, the troops of the Fourth Crusade sack the city, desecrating its churches.
This event and the subsequent occupation, aggravated no doubt by the stark doctrinal differences between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, served to intensify Greek hostility towards the west.
This Latin incursion into the Byzantine world brought with it feudal structures: a Latin empire around Constantinople was established, encompassing Thrace and the northwest of Asia Minor (1204–61); the kingdom of Macedonia, taking in Thessaloníki and Macedonia (1204–24); central Greece was carved up into baronies, and the Peloponnese became the principality of Achaia. Confronting this Latin hegemony were three independent states preserving the Greek traditions: the empire of Nicea (1204–61), the despotic State of Epirus (1205–1318), and the empire of Trebizond (1204–1461), geographically isolated to the east of what is now modern Turkey.
1249 Foundation of Mystra. Originally a simple defensive fort, it became a leading centre of cultural and spiritual affairs under the influence of the philosopher George Gemistos Plethon.
1261 The emperor of Nicea, Michael VIII Paleologus, recaptures Constantinople, and over subsequent years part of the Peloponnese is retaken. The despotic State of Morea is founded at Mystra in 1348; it is to last until 1460.
1331 Nicea captured by the Turks.
Late 14C Exodus of Byzantine academics and intellectuals to the west: Manuel Chrysolaras to Florence, where he taught Greek language and literature, and George Ermonymos to Paris, where he taught Erasmus. The spread of Greek ideas contributed to the development of humanism.
1439 Council of Florence: proclamation of an alliance between Catholic and Orthodox Churches (subsequently condemned by Patriarch Gennadius II Scholarius in 1456).
29 May 1453 Constantinople finally falls to the Ottomans, despite the valiant efforts of the last emperor Constantine Paleologus, who waited in vain for assistance from the west.
1460 Mystra taken by the Turks.
Ottoman Domination and Independence
For four centuries, Greece formed part of the Ottoman Empire. The Turks inherited the Byzantine machinery of government and ruled their dominions firmly. During this era there was a revival in Hellenistic sentiment, which was to reach its climax in a bloody struggle for independence, drawing in other European nations and giving birth to a modern state.
Two centuries of conquest
It would be wrong to imagine the Turks descending as a horde upon the empire of Byzantium. Their process of conquest started in the Balkans in the 14C, peaked with the capture of Constantinople in 1453, and was not concluded until 1669, when Herakleion was captured from the Venetians, who continued to maintain a presence in the Ionian Islands, notably Corfu, until the 18C.
1444–81 Reign of Mehmet II who, after taking Constantinople, conquers eastern Greece.
1456–75 Fall of the Duchy of Athens, Boeotia, Lesbos, Halkída in Euboia, and Sámos.
1480 Siege of Rhodes; the Knights of St John successfully defend the island against the Turks. Mehmet II’s heirs continue his expansionist strategy, taking the Peloponnese and numerous islands, gaining mastery of the eastern Mediterranean.
1500 Sack of Naupacte.
1522 Suleiman the Magnificent takes Rhodes and the Dodecanese.
1537 onwards Nauplion, Monemvassía and the Aegean Islands fall to the Ottomans. Only Timos, under Venetian control, remains unconquered. The former corsair Khair al Din, originally from Lesbos, now Suleiman II’s grand admiral, defeats Charles V’s fleet off Prévesa.
1566 Capture of Chios.
1571 Cyprus taken. Naval Battle of Lepanto ; Don John of Austria and the Venetians defeat the Turkish fleet, thereby curbing Ottoman expansion.
1669 The fall of Herakleion ends Venetian control of Crete.
Organisation of the Ottoman Empire
The Turks allowed Christians and Jews to worship freely, but as non-Muslims their status was inferior; known as raïas , their continued existence was deemed necessary in order to meet the empire’s manpower requirements.
Large towns were administered by pashas ; smaller towns and villages were ruled by agas . The government exacted heavy taxes from the Muslim and non-Muslim communities alike, but the latter had to perform all sorts of additional duties imposed by the local rulers in the rich agricultural regions. According to Ottoman law, all lands belonged to the sultan, who often delegated their administration to his great generals. They acted as tax gatherers, keeping large amounts of revenue for themselves.
The harshest aspect of the occupation, especially during the first 200 years, was the abduction of young boys. The strongest were chosen to serve as mercenary soldiers, Janissaries , the sultan’s personal guard. The brightest were raised in the harem and became devoted government officials. Some Christians converted to the Islamic faith to escape poverty. Many more took refuge in the harsh, wild mountains where the Turks hardly ventured and succeeded in forming prosperous and largely autonomous communities. From the 17C Phanariots , natives of the Phanar district in Constantinople, who were often descendants of the Byzantine imperial families, were appointed as governors (hospodar) of the Romanian provinces, as interpreters (dragoman) for the sultan and often as ambassadors to the western powers. Many of those Christians who could afford to leave chose exile; this Greek diaspora was to make a significant contribution towards the emergence of humanism in the west, and keep alive Hellenic aspirations which would subsequently lead to an independent Greece.
After the fall of Byzantium, the sultan not only confirmed the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople in religious matters, but also appointed him as temporal leader (ethnarches) , responsible for the internal affairs of all the orthodox communities throughout the empire. He was also answerable to the Turkish authorities for the loyalty and good behaviour of the Christian population. In spite of, or perhaps because of, this dual function, the Orthodox Church succeeded in maintaining the Greek religion, language and traditions in these difficult times. The monasteries, in particular those on Mount Athos, the Metéora and Patmós, were the principal centres of Greek culture.
The struggle for liberty
There had been revolts in the 17C, but it was in the 18C that a feeling of nationalism began to develop with the full support of the Orthodox Church. Meanwhile, the Venetians continued to maintain a strong presence in the eastern Mediterranean; in 1687 they retook the Peloponnese and the island of Aigina. Following the Treaty of Karlowitz, the Ottomans ceded Morea to Venice.
It was from outside Greece, however, that the strongest impulses came. Among émigré Greeks there were numerous secret societies that raised funds and laid plans to bring an end to Ottoman occupation. The largest was the Filikí Etería , founded in Odessa in 1814 by Alexander Ypsilantis , aide-de-camp to the Russian Tsar. These societies consisted of merchants and civil servants like the Phanariots (natives of the Phanar district in Constantinople), ship owners from the islands and businessmen, bankers and writers living in Greece or abroad, where they were influenced by the ideals of the Age of Enlightenment and later of the French Revolution.
In the mountains, bands of klephts (the word literally means robber in Greek) began to harass the Turks; they were joined by the militia (armatoles) , composed of Greek citizens armed by the Turks to fight the rebels but who took up their cause.
The intellectuals of the secret societies and the rebels of the mountains had little in common except a desire to overthrow Ottoman rule; there was no clear agenda as to how it should be replaced, with some favouring a republic, others a monarchy. The hunger for liberation, however, was the factor which overrode all others.
The grand revolution
1797 End of the Venetian Republic. The Ionian Islands come under French control.
1800 Ionian Islands taken by Russia and handed over to Turkish rule.
1807 Treaty of Tilsit – Ionian Islands revert to French control.
1809 The British occupy the Ionian Islands, except Corfu which resists occupation until 1814.
1818 Ionian Islands declared independent, under a British protectorate. Greek confirmed as the official language.
The first uprisings begin in the Danube districts in 1821, but a lack of wider support results in failure.
25 March 1821 The Metropolitan of Patras, Germanós , raises the flag of revolt, a white cross on a sky-blue background, against Sultan Mahmoud II at the Agía Lávra Monastery near Kalávrita. The revolt spreads throughout the Peloponnese, into Epirus, ruled by Ali Pasha, and to the islands of the Saronic Gulf; 40 000 Turkish troops are massacred. This was the start of the War of Independence, also known as the National Revolution . By 1822 Theodore Kolokotrónis and his troops were in total control of the Peloponnese.
1 January 1822 Unilateral declaration of independence . The provisional government under Alexandros Mavrocordato is established at Missolonghi. Following the insurrection on Sámos, the Turks massacre 20 000 men, enslaving their women and children. Discord between the provisional government and Kolokotrónis in the Peloponnese, with a second assembly being established at Kranidi.
1823 New government in place, first under Petros Mavromichalis, and subsequently Georgios Coundouriotis.
1825 End of civil war between monarchist and republicans. Turkish victory at Modon; the troops of Mehmet Ali, Sultan of Egypt, ravage Morea.
Having failed to storm Missolonghi , the Turks besiege the city in April 1822. In 1824 Lord Byron visits the city and resolves to do everything in his power to help the cause of Greek independence, but he dies prematurely the following year. The city falls in 1826 and the resultant loss of life has a great impact in Europe.
1826 St Petersburg protocol; Britain and Russia decide to intervene to enforce an armistice “without however taking any part in the hostilities”. The allied fleet goes to parley with the Turkish fleet anchored off Chios (Híos) in Navarino Bay and ends up destroying it.
1827 National assembly convenes and proposes a republican government headed by a president to hold office for seven years, and the election of a chamber of deputies. Subsequently the London convention upholds the St Petersburg protocol. The Ottoman Empire refuses to comply and its fleet is blockaded, then destroyed, by the allies in October that year.
1828 John Kapodístrias becomes governor of Greece, reorganising the state and army, but his republican leanings alienate many.
1829 Treaty of Adrianople grants autonomy to Greece.
1830 Treaty of London ; Greece’s independent status recognised by the Great Powers.
9 October 1831 Assassination of John Kapodístrias.
1832 Exploiting a clause in the Treaty of London, the allies decide on a monarchy for Greece and ask Otto von Wittelsbach to become king.
Democracy and a European Identity
Otto I and George I
1833–62 Reign of Otto I of Bavaria.
1834 Athens becomes capital of independent Greece. Foundation of first state university in 1837.
1854 Crimean War. Greece sides with Russia, provoking an Anglo-French attack on Piraeus.
1863–1913 Reign of George I of Denmark, a constitutional monarch along the British model.
1864 The Ionian Islands , British possessions since 1814, become part of Greece. Proclamation of a new liberal constitution: George I declared ‘King of Greeks’.
1881 Congress of Berlin: Greece recovers Thessaly and most of Epirus.
1882–93 Construction of Corinth Cana l.
1896 First modern Olympic Games.
1908 Elefthérios Venizélos proclaims the unification of Crete with Greece.
1912–13 Balkan Wars . Macedonia and Epirus liberated from the Turks by the Greek army.
After John Kapodístrias , the prime minister, was assassinated in 1831, the Great Powers (Russia, Britain and France) imposed an absolute monarchy upon Greece, in the shape of a Bavarian prince, Otto I , who was not even 18 years old at the time of his accession. A Catholic himself, his wife (also Catholic) was vehemently opposed to Orthodoxy, and he presided over a cabinet made up of Bavarian ministers and a German speaking court. A coup on 3 September 1843 forced him to choose a Greek cabinet and approve a constitution. Even so, as the king continued to intervene in political life, the wave of liberal opposition – secretly supported by the British who disliked the king’s close relationship with Russia – culminated in a second coup and Otto was deposed.
On 6 June 1863 Prince William of Denmark (1845–1913), suggested by Britain as a possible candidate for the throne, accepted the crown and became king with the title of George I . For its part, Britain gave up its protectorate of the Ionian Islands, which restored Greek territorial integrity. The role of the new dynasty was in fact to bring Greek policy into line with that of the British in eastern Europe. Pressure from an increasingly influential middle class led the new king to grant a more liberal constitution in 1864, then to introduce parliamentary government in 1875.
The main problem, however, remained the territorial issue, as significant areas of Greek population were still under Turkish occupation. In 1866 the king backed a Cretan uprising against the island’s Ottoman overlords but, lacking support from the big powers, he had to leave the island in the hands of the sultan. When the Russo-Turkish war began in 1877, Greece invaded Thessaly but, although the Treaty of San Stefano recognised the independence of Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria, it maintained Turkish rule in Macedonia. It was not until 1881 and the Congress of Berlin that Thessaly became part of Greece. In March 1896 Crete, with the support of Greek volunteers, again rebelled against the sultan. The Greek government landed troops there in February 1897 and an army commanded by the Crown Prince Constantine invaded Macedonia, where it was defeated. The mediation of the big powers led to the signature in December of the Treaty of Constantinople, which granted Crete autonomy under the rule of the king’s second son, Prince George.
Dissatisfied with the lack of territorial recovery, discontent developed and was aggravated by the Balkan crisis. The first sign of this potent nationalism occurred in 1908, when the Cretan Elefthérios Venizélos (1864–1936) proclaimed the unification of Crete with Greece. An army revolt in 1909 forced the king to call on Venizélos to form a government in 1910. The aim of Venizélos was to unite all territories with Greek populations and to reorganise the administration, army and economy. In 1911 he gained approval for a new constitution with better guarantees for individual freedoms. In 1912, together with Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro, he founded the Balkan League , which declared war on Turkey on 18 October. Greece invaded Macedonia, and in November took Thessaloníki, where King George was assassinated in March 1913.
The London Conference in May 1913 put an end to this first conflict, but the arguments over the partition of Macedonia started a second one, with Bulgaria this time fighting its former allies. The Treaty of Bucharest in August 1913 sanctioned the annexation of southern Macedonia, southern Epirus and most of the Aegean Islands by Greece, as well as her sovereignty over Crete, but gave northern Macedonia to Serbia. In the same year, the Council of Florence ceded northern Epirus to the newly formed state of Albania. Even today, territorial issues remain hotly debated.
War follows war
1913 Constantine I comes to the throne.
1914–18 First World War. Greece brought into the war by Venizélos on the side of the Allies. Thrace and Smyrna awarded to Greece in 1919.
1917 Abdication of Constantine I; his younger son Alexander I succeeds him.
1919–22 New Greco-Turkish conflict; the Great Catastrophe . After the defeat of the Greek army, 1.5 million ethnic Greeks from Asia Minor become refugees.
1920 Following a referendum, Constantine returns to the throne.
1922 Constantine abdicates again in favour of his elder son George II.
1923 Treaty of Lausanne redraws Greece’s frontiers: Turkey takes Smyrna, Italy the Dodecanese, and Britain the island of Cyprus.
25 March 1924 Declaration of a republic; Admiral Coundoriotas elected president.
1935 After a number of coups, a monarchist government is elected; following a referendum George II returns to the throne.
1936–41 Dictatorship of General Metaxas.
1940–41 Italian troops invade Epirus on 28 October 1940. The Greek army repulses this attack, pushing the Italians back into Albania.
1941–44 German occupation.
When war broke out in 1914, the Greek government was split between the patriots with Venizélos at their head and the Germanophiles grouped around King Constantine I (1868–1923), brother-in-law of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Venizélos suggested that the king should align himself with the Allies but he was forced by the king to resign in March 1915. Returned to power by the electors, Venizélos tried to make a secret pact with the Allies but again the king demanded his resignation. The army then gave its backing to the prime minister and together they formed a republican government at Thessaloníki in September 1916. The king then started to form partisan battalions, so the French occupied Thessaly and demanded his abdication. Venizélos returned to Athens in June 1918. The new king, Alexander I (1893–1920), asked him to form a government and on 15 September aligned himself with the Allies. In the Treaties of Neuilly (1919) and Sèvres (1920), Greece gained eastern Thrace and the Smyrna region of Asia Minor came under its administration.
Then Britain, playing on Venizélos’s imperialist ambitions, caused the Greek leader to start a new war with Turkey by annexing the Smyrna region. This proved very unpopular and brought about the downfall of Venizélos at the polls in November 1920, immediately after the death of the king. A plebiscite followed, recalling Constantine I. Abandoned by its allies, Greece was unable to hold out for long against the Turks. Military failures led to Constantine’s second abdication in September 1922, in favour of his son George II (1890–1947), and to the evacuation of Asia Minor and the tragic forced emigration of the ethnic Greeks living there. This massive influx of new population could only aggravate an already difficult economic situation. The elections returned the Venizélos party to power and the King preferred to abdicate (in December 1923). A republic was proclaimed on 25 March 1924 and confirmed by a plebiscite. It experienced numerous crises, with a succession of alternating dictatorships and republican union governments. July 1928 saw the return of Venizélos as head of government until his resignation in 1932. Numerous domestic problems accentuated the political divide between the Right and the Communist Left. Consequently a further coup in March 1935, supported by Venizélos himself, abolished the republic; a plebiscite soon restored the monarchy and reinstalled George II. The king asked General Metaxás to form a government, although, to all intents and purposes, he acted as dictator until his death in 1941. With the king’s agreement, Metaxás abolished the constitution, dissolved parliament and adopted Fascist policies. Greece had, however, felt threatened by the annexation of Albania by Italy under Mussolini. When in October 1940 Italy demanded free passage for its troops, Greece rejected the ultimatum and came over to the British side. The Italians crossed the border into Greece but the Greek army succeeded in pushing them back towards Albania. German troops then came to Mussolini’s aid. The king fled first to Crete and then, under British occupation, to Cairo; Greece was divided between the Italians, Germans and Bulgarians. Resistance groups, in particular the fiercely Marxist National Liberation Front (EAM), waged active guerrilla warfare against the occupiers with ever-increasing support among the population. The Russian offensive in Romania caused the Germans to evacuate Greece in October 1944. The king, George II, had meanwhile set up a government in exile under Papandréou, and promised not to return until there had been a plebiscite.
The civil war and entry into Europe
1947–49 Civil war.
1952 Greece joins NATO.
1953–63 Period of conservative governments under Pagagos and Konstandínos Karamanlís .
1967–74 Dictatorship of the Colonels.
1974 Referendum decides in favour of a republic.
1981 Greece joins the EEC, subsequently the European Union.
2004 Athens hosts the Olympic Games.
2006 The Council of the European Union names Patras, Greece the European “Capital of Culture” for 2006.
As the Germans evacuated Greece to the north, the British army was disembarking at Piraeus. The British were particularly worried about the influence exerted by the EAM and asked in vain that their partisan army should be disarmed. In the elections of March 1946, massive abstentions on the part of the republicans gave the victory to the royalists, who pressed forward with a plebiscite which came out in favour of the return of the king. When he died soon after, he was succeeded by his brother, Paul I (1901–64). While the Treaty of Paris of February 1947 gave the Dodecanese Islands to Greece, the interior of the country faced an extremely critical situation since the left-wing parties refused to support the monarchy. In December 1947, with Soviet support, General Márkos formed a provisional government of Free Greece and took refuge in the mountains of the north; from there he waged a guerrilla campaign against the royalist government. The civil war lasted until October 1949 and was ended only by the capture, with the help of the United States, of the rebels’ main stronghold in the Grámmos Mountains.
The ensuing elections were a victory for the moderate parties but successive governments up to 1963 were, in fact, controlled by extreme right-wing forces, which in effect formed a parallel government. The emergency laws passed at the time of the civil war were never repealed and remained in force. When the elections of 1963 gave power to the democratic parties, Giórgos Papandréou (1888–1968) was asked to form a government; however, the positions he adopted were not always in line with US policy, and the extreme right in Greece saw in his premiership a threat to their privileges. Badly advised, the young King Constantine II (b.1940) disagreed with his head of government, who resigned. This gave rise to a political crisis, in the course of which every attempt to form a legitimate government failed. When the elections held in 1967 failed to produce the parliamentary majority expected by the extreme right, a junta led by a number of colonels, who did not even represent a majority within the army, took power in the name of the king.
The colonels set up a regime based on terror; opponents were dragged before a military court and either imprisoned or deported. Constantine II tried to remove the colonels in a coup but failed; he left Greece on 13 December 1967. A new constitution restricted individual freedom and gave excessive powers to the army. The hostility of the majority of the population steadily increased and, in spite of some measures intended to give an illusion of liberalisation, such as the deposition of the king and proclamation of the republic in July 1973, demonstrations against the regime grew in scale. The colonels responded by proclaiming martial law and setting up special courts, but in 1974, because of the Cyprus crisis and squabbles within the junta, those in power were obliged to call on Konstandínos Karamanlís , leader of the right-wing parties and an opponent of the regime. He abolished all the institutions of dictatorship and reintroduced the constitution of 1952, with the exception of the clauses relating to the monarchy. Fundamental liberties were restored, political parties legalised, and the main figures involved in the dictatorship brought to justice. The referendum of 8 December 1974 decided in favour of a republic , and a new constitution was promulgated in June 1975.
Since then, the return to democracy has been clearly demonstrated by the alternation in power of right- and left-wing parties, and further reinforced by Greece’s membership of the EU, which it joined in 1981. Greek political life continues to be dominated by relations with its neighbours, especially Turkey, whose possible entry into the European Union it opposes, Macedonia (in 1992 Greece refused to recognise the republic of this name formed from part of the former Yugoslavia, which also laid claim to part of the Greco-Macedonian heritage), and Albania.